Thursday, June 12, 1997

Puritanism in Banking

In his book Money: Whence it came, where it went” (1975), John Kenneth Galbraith discusses banks and banking issues which I believe may be applicable to the Venezuela of today.

In one section, he addresses the function of banks in the creation of wealth. Galbraith speculates on the fact that one of the basic fundamentals of the accelerated growth experienced in the western and south-western parts of the United States during the past century was the existence of an aggressive banking sector working in a relatively unregulated environment.

Banks opened and closed doors and bankruptcies were frequent, but as a consequence of agile and flexible credit policies, even the banks that failed left a wake of development in their passing.

In a second section, Galbraith refers to the banks’ function of democratization of capital as they allow entities with initiative, ideas, and will to work although they initially lack the resources to participate in the region’s economic activity. In this second case, Galbraith states that as the regulations affecting the activities of the banking sector are increased, the possibilities of this democratization of capital would decrease. There is obviously a risk in lending to the poor.

In Venezuela, the last few years [the 1990s] have seen a debate, almost puritan in its fervor, relative to banking activity and how, through the implementation of increased controls, we could avoid a repeat of a banking crisis like the one suffered in 1994 at a cost of almost 20% of GDP. Up to a certain point, this seems natural in light of the trauma created by this crisis.

However, in a country in which unemployment increases daily and critical poverty spreads like powder, I believe we have definitely lost the perspective of the true function of a bank when I read about the preoccupation of our Bank Regulating Agency that “the increase in credit activity could be accompanied by the risk that loans awarded to new clients are not backed up with necessary support (guarantees)” and that as a result we must consider new restrictions on the sector.

It is obvious that we must ensure that banks do not overstep their bounds while exercising their primary functions—a mistake which in turn would result in costly rescue operations. We cannot, however, in lieu of perfecting this control, lose sight of the fact that the banks’ principal purpose should be to assist in the country’s economic development and that it is precisely with this purpose in mind that they are allowed to operate.

I cannot believe that any of the Venezuelan banks were awarded their charters based purely and simply on a blanket promise to return deposits. Additionally, when we talk about not returning deposits, nobody can deny that—should we add up the costs caused by the poor administration, sins, and crimes perpetrated by the local private banking sector throughout its history—this would turn out to be only a fraction of the monetary value of the comparable costs caused by the public/government sector.

Regulatory Puritanism can affect the banking sector in many ways. Among others, we can mention the fact that it could obligate the banks to accelerate unduly the foreclosure and liquidation of a business client simply because the liquid value for the bank in the process of foreclosure is much higher than the value at which the bank is forced to carry the asset on its books. In the Venezuela of today, we do not have the social flexibility to be able to afford unnecessary foreclosures and liquidations.

In order to comprehend the process involved in the accounting of losses in a bank, one must understand that this does not necessarily have anything to do with actual and real losses, but rather with norms and regulations that require the creation of reserves. Obviously banks will be affected more or less depending on the severity of these norms. Currently, a comparative analysis would show that Venezuela has one of the most rigid and conservative sets of regulations in the world.

On top of this, we have arrived at this extreme situation from a base, extreme on the other end of the spectrum, in which not only was the regulatory framework unduly flexible, but in which, due to the absence of adequate supervision, the regulations were practically irrelevant.

Obviously, the process of going from one extreme to the other in the establishment of banking regulations is one of the explanations for the severe contraction of our banking sector. Until only a few years ago, Venezuela’s top banks were among the largest banks of Latin America. Today, they simply do not appear on the list.

It is evident that the financial health of the Venezuelan banking community requires an economic recovery and any Bank Superintendent complying with his mission should actively be supporting said recovery instead of, as sometimes seems evident, trying to receive distinctions for merit from Basel (home of the international bank regulatory agencies).

If we insist in maintaining a firm defeatist attitude which definitely does not represent a vision of growth for the future, we will most likely end up with the most reserved and solid banking sector in the world, adequately dressed in very conservative business suits, presiding over the funeral of the economy. I would much prefer their putting on some blue jeans and trying to get the economy moving.

Published in The Daily Journal, Caracas, June 1997 and republished in Voice and Noise (2006)